Norman Parke is on mission to become a worldwide superstar
This week: Norman Parke
Who is 'Stormin' Norman Parke? To the uninitiated, he is a cage fighter who attempts to beat his opponent black and blue.
In reality, he is a supremely skilled Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) athlete who trains six hours a day in boxing, kickboxing, judo, wrestling and muay thai. He plies his trade all over the world competing against the planet's best fighters in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
Mixed Martial Arts is considered the fastest growing sport in the world and at 27 years of age, Parke is to date Northern Ireland's only competitor in the UFC with four wins, one draw and only one loss, yet this highly impressive achievement has gone largely unnoticed in his own country.
You have to wonder why.
Norman is an unassuming, polite guy who is candid in his assessment of the difficulties facing the sport.
"For one, many people do not even understand what MMA is," he explains. "MMA is a sport which combines boxing, kickboxing, muay thai, wrestling and ju-jitsu allowing men and women from different backgrounds to compete against each other under one set of rules."
These rules are extensive and always place fighter safety at the forefront of every contest. Biting, gouging, strikes to the groin, back of the head or spine and kicking a downed opponent are all illegal.
It is seen by those involved as the truest form of combat sports and the ultimate proving ground of who is the world's best fighter. In almost all promotions across the globe, the contests take place in a cage, hence the misunderstood term 'cage fighting', mainly for safety reasons to prevent the fighters from falling through ring ropes.
Secondly, while there are many promotions throughout the world, terrestrial channels have yet to embrace the sport, so money for domestic fighters is limited.
Parke says: "Every fighter wants to get to the UFC because the money in it means we can focus 100% on becoming the best fighter possible without worrying about paying bills. Most fighters in the UFC don't earn much money but I know if I can reach the top I will be set for life."
His journey into the world of MMA began over a decade ago when he first attended a judo class in his hometown of Bushmills when he was 15.
He readily admits that in his younger days he wasn't as disciplined as he is now.
"I was a bit of a tearaway after falling in with the wrong crowd," he reflects.
His life could easily have continued on that path, but he found his way into judo and quickly became Irish champion as well as picking up wrestling titles and having over 20 amateur boxing bouts.
"I actually lost my first pro MMA fight to Greg Loughran (one of Ireland's greatest ever MMA fighters) but I kept training hard with coach Davy Patterson in Antrim and it was all going well, apart from the commute," said Parke.
"Then Rodney Moore opened his gym much nearer to my house which made getting to training a lot easier, so I made the switch to train with Rodney full-time and have not looked back since."
Moore is a decorated mixed martial artist himself who has fought all over Europe and he soon recognised the potential in Norman.
A gifted athlete, with the determination to succeed and the guiding hand of a brilliant coach behind him, Parke began to rack up victory upon victory, winning titles along the way. Under the tutelage of Moore and with the help of Colin 'Big C' Robinson and Loughran himself, Parke embarked on a winning streak that helped him catch the attention of the UFC.
He reached the big time in December 2012 by winning The Ultimate Fighter - a show regarded as the main reason the sport has global popularity.
It is a reality-based mixed martial arts show televised all around the world where the winner receives a prestigious contract to fight in the UFC.
Parke tried out for Team UK to be part of the new Ultimate Fighter series dubbed The "Smashes" which saw two eight-man teams from the UK and Australia do battle in the latter where the north Antrim man (right, with Moore) became the lightweight champion.
With that victory he was awarded a contract, embarking on a global adventure, winning fights and friends from Las Vegas to Manchester.
At the same time, Dublin counterpart Conor McGregor was becoming one of the biggest draws in the sport. McGregor is a truth-talking, strut-walking, sharp-dressing, crowd-pleasing fighter with a range of devastating skills. He's the king of the soundbite.
By contrast, Parke has gone about his work diligently without fanfare, mainly because three of his four victories have come by way of judges' decision. If Parke is to climb the rankings (he is currently just outside the top 15) and become the headline act in the sport then he needs more knock-outs.
His next chance to do that comes next Saturday in Brazil where he will face local favourite Francisco Trinaldo in UFC Fight Night 67.
He says: "I had the flu leading up to my last fight - I couldn't train or cut weight properly yet I never thought of withdrawing. This time my opponent has changed several times but it doesn't matter - the result will be the same."
With its millionaire superstar champions crossing over to mainstream films and big-brand sponsorship deals, it's easy to see why any UFC fighter can see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Finding it can be tough.
Norman knows that well. His current deal is a six-figure sum, but it amounts to $100,000 for nine fights over a three-year period. He has three fights left on this deal and knows that impressing his bosses and the fans is the key to long-term financial success.
"Getting a $50,000 bonus for performance of the night is what I am aiming for against Trinaldo. I'm looking to finish him emphatically and making everyone take notice," he said.
"I'm going to put on a show and move up the rankings because I believe in myself 100% and know what I'm capable of. Now I want to showcase this to the world, and ultimately become the UFC champion."
'We're not Brazil, we're Northern Ireland' is a song sung by fans as they witness the rise in fortunes of our footballers at Windsor Park but on May 30 in Brazil, his supporters will hope to be singing the same as they witness Parke's continuing rise in fortunes.
So, who is Norman Parke? He's a pioneer for MMA in this country, a humble Ulsterman making a living doing what he loves, and also our greatest combat sports fighter that you've never heard of.
Hopefully sooner rather than later more people will recognise and maybe even revere his name.